Cleary sets example for his replacement

Sen. Ray Cleary
Sen. Ray Cleary

State Sen. Ray Cleary has term-limited himself and won’t run again. This region’s residents must hope that someone will step up for the post who is as high a caliber of public servant as Cleary turned out to be.

Cleary, 67, of Murrells Inlet, was elected to State Senate District 34 in 2004, filling a seat vacated by former senator and member of Congress Arthur Ravenel of Charleston. The district was much changed in the reapportionment after the 2000 census, giving the weight of the population to Horry County instead of Charleston County. The district spans the coast from Surfside Beach south into Mount Pleasant in Charleston County.

Cleary, a dentist with no previous elective office experience, won in a three-way Republican primary, and Democrats did not contest the seat. In that primary the victor was challenged by a retired Georgetown County circuit judge and a Litchfield business owner who had unsuccessfully run for political office previously. During the campaign, the business owner bowed out and endorsed Cleary, who won the primary by a healthy margin over someone who had been considered the favorite when the race began. No one from either party challenged him in his next two elections, more proof that voters were satisfied with his performance.

His first election showed that one need not be a previous officeholder to win a state senate seat, which should encourage others who have been active in community affairs to consider seeking an office which deeply affects the day-to-day lives of all residents, even if they are unaware of it. The 46 senators, along with the 124 House members, are responsible for the state budget and for laws we all live under. If you think the state budget does not affect your life, think again. Everyone is crying for fixes to roads and infrastructure, and that’s the state’s responsibility.

Despite the outcries for road fixes, legislators have not been able to agree on a solution, mostly because of those who refuse to consider a tax increase. But you can’t blame Cleary for the failure of road fixes. From the beginning of his service, he attempted to pass a gas tax increase to address the roads problem, but always ran into roadblocks. Cleary avoided the dreaded tax increase words though, calling it a user fee, because a gas tax is paid by those who use the roads.

It will be interesting to see if Cleary can help bring about some change on that topic in the upcoming legislative session as he completes the last year of his term. Now, on top of the already dire road situation, the state has to find a way to make repairs to damages caused by the Great Rainstorm of 2015.

But Cleary was involved in much more than road issues. Early on, he pushed for a law that requires health insurance to pay for autism treatment. In his first term, he and a few other senators formed a Reform Caucus that offered nine proposals on issues such as campaign fund disclosure and state agency lobbyists. It made little headway, but the notable thing about it was the bipartisan and even-handed approach.

“We are saying that good government is not partisan, and reform of an antiquated system is long overdue,” Cleary said at the time.

His willingness to work across party lines, to be open to constituents and the media, and to try new approaches serves the district and the region well. Another commendable attribute is his view that the Legislature should not meddle in local government affairs.

In 2008, for example, he prevented passage of a bill establishing an Horry County Airport Authority, taking the Myrtle Beach International Airport out of the county’s control for no good reason other than annoyance at the way the airport was being run.

Along with other Horry and Georgetown senators, he bucked other members year after year trying to get fairer funding for Coastal Carolina University, which is subject to an old funding formula that provides less per student than most other state colleges receive.

Don’t misunderstand, his service has not been flawless, no one’s could be. He drew flack for some of his magistrate choices. Senators have the sole power to nominate a magistrate, though the governor must appoint them.

And although he has a mostly creditable record on coastal and environmental issues, he ushered through special legislation that allows Debordieu Colony an exemption from existing beach rules so it can rebuild its seawall.

But in its totality, Cleary’s service is of the type that best serves the district, our two counties, and the state. Those who run for that office should look to his service as an example from which to learn.